Civil Rights Battle Continues On In Jamestown

Fifty years ago, along heat baked banks of the Lincoln Memorial reflection pool in Washington, D.C., I stood there shivering in the August sun. My highly privileged childhood was overshadowed by the enormity of the present and the future was cast in change. My mom, at 97, still shivers when we recall the transformative power of his dream, so much of it she lived. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the emotions of hundreds of years of untold pain of a people pent up in inhumanity and I, as well as the soul of a nation healed, and still I shiver.

How does a dive into a nearly frozen winter lake sound? Like a wolf’s scream from a mountain, right? The body is shocked by the cold. Hypothermia or worse is risked and we’re not equipped with gills. The few who dare to dive in are featured in the morning paper or on comedy TV and their folly gains one minute ratings. The topic of civil rights for mainstream America still shocks like a winter dip in the lake. If we whisper a call to action or act we are uncomfortable and fear being labeled a perpetrator of unrest, ripe to face reprisals. So, most prefer to avoid the various theories of race relativity. However, whether it’s addressed or not, everyone is directly or indirectly affected by the topic that sounds like a dip in an icy lake. That being said, I ask ”Is implementation of civil rights or perception of implementation in Chautauqua County affecting any of us?” And I ask, are you ready to dive in and fine out?

According to the 2010 United States Census, Chautauqua count is home to a population total of approximately 135,000. Jamestown’s population is approximately 31,000. having tremendous natural beauty such as Lake Erie, Chautauqua Lake and treasured attractions such as Chautauqua Institution, we are blessed to live in one of the most beautiful regions in the country.

The history of Jamestown is representative of many settlements across the country. Native Americans, Stance Tribal group, were displaced and now reside predominantly in the Cattaraugus Reservation. Currently, they comprise 0.4 percent of the total population and have a 39 percent unemployment rate. African Americans are 2.7 percent of the population according to U.S. Census 2010 and have an unemployment rate of 20.9 percent. White unemployment is 7.7 percent and Hispanic 13.8 percent.

In historic Jamestown, did you know that in 1820 Federal Census listed three slaves in Chautauqua, all owned by members of the Prendergast family (the founders of Jamestown, N.Y.)? Many citizens of Jamestown and neighboring communities were once very proactive in abolition efforts prior to the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, especially in the rich history of conductor stations in the Underground Railroad (UGRR). Catherine Harris of Jamestown, Caroline Storum of Busti and her husband, the Rev. Jermain Loguen, Mr. Eber Pettit of Dunkirk, Silas Shearman of Jamestown and many others risked life and limb to assist in the pursuit of freedom.

Since the dark and difficult pre-Civil War centuries, through war’s end and Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) violence, to Rosa Parks’ peaceful protest and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent defiance of discrimination, the battle to end racism was won and the Civil Rights Era raised the humanitarian flag nationally and internationally. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Law and hundreds of years of doors barred by prejudice opened. In Jamestown, African Americans could attend any public social event undisturbed. African Americans could enter any eating establishment and expect the same service as anyone else. Education, job opportunities were accorded, housing barriers lifted. Political participation was encouraged as evidenced in Jamestown by the long years of service by County Legislator Lula Taylor and City Councilman Vivian Taylor, both African Americans. The YWCA of Jamestown has worked tirelessly for years in the elimination of racism and discrimination in all forms. Nationally countless lives were lost over hundreds of years before the nation’s cultural adjustment and expanded Bill of Rights could be implemented.

As a result of life sacrifice by so many to enact a national tolerance, my husband and I, African American residents or Jamestown, had the great opportunity to purchase a landmark building and nationally known manufacturing business. the formerly thriving Watson Manufacturing Co. was on its knees when we purchased it. As local and national ”firsts” in the industry, we were celebrated by the community as we revived and expanded the operation. However, working for a black man was a difficult concept and our three international unions fought and vandalized the property during many strikes. The 500,000-square=foot building was torched 23 times and racial epithets were common. Of course, we absorbed 20 years of incredible difficulty until Watson was no more. During the late 1990’s we were involved in many strong community based organizations to bring about equity for citizens of color in Jamestown, Most prominent, the Jamestown Leadership Committee fought hard to convince Time Warner Cable to bring Black Entertainment Television (BET) to Jamestown. We succeeded. Telemundo was already being aired without petition. We picketed Jamestown City Hall after many failed attempts for the city of Jamestown to honor Martin Luther King Day. Finally, the mayor and city officials agreed to honor the slain Civil Rights leader in keeping with the county holiday, previously sponsored by Lula Taylor. Freedom of Information of employment figures at Jamestown Community College confirmed that minority hiring was nearly nil. The president was invited to our meeting, but rested his talk on qualifications. Equally the same hiring practice was dominant in the Jamestown Public School system. We put pressure on the board to hire minorities, but were unsuccessful. One of the two black teachers in the entire system was desperately frustrated and sought assistance from the Human Rights Commission in Buffalo. Her case was settled and she left Jamestown. A young gifted African American, Keisha Blake, born in Jamestown, majoring in education, graduated from St. Bonaventure University with honors. She was turned away by the Jamestown Public School system for attempting to gain employment for an open position in her expertise. She too left Jamestown and is currently such an excelsior educator that she is being groomed for a position as principal in a prestigious school in New York City. Another young African American woman was ambitious to own a beautiful (and reasonably priced) restaurant/book shop in downtown Jamestown. During lunch, my husband and I frequently enjoyed the food and ambiance. Unfortunately, few others patronized her, but the coffee shop across the street was always bustling. She too left Jamestown. There were only three New York State Registered Historic buildings associated with African Americans in Jamestown; all were demolished by the city. They were Watson Industries, Inc., Catherine Harris UGRR home and the Silas Shearman UGRR home. There are other inequities, but in the remaining minute, I would like to suggest a few measures to improve the pulse of the community as we move forward.

The YWCA is the only mainstream organization in Jamestown that boldly incorporates ”the elimination of racism” as the cornerstone of its mission and therefore has greater resolution responsibility. Task the board members of Jamestown YWCA and members of its Racial Justice Committee to task community and business leaders to join in corrective action in areas mentioned above. Recognize businesses that make equity a priority that works, such as WCA Hospital or Cummins Engine. Insist on the sorely overlooked promotion of permanent recognition for minority achievers in the area, especially Mr. Ron Graham, founder of Infinity Performing Arts and founder of the Chautauqua Striders. Develop Jamestown Adoption Center, an incubation mentoring program for prospective minority leaders to be groomed and positioned by Jamestown leaders to utilize advanced skillsets in business creation or job placement. Establish outreach programs partnering with Jamestown’s Jackson Center to assist individuals or organizations who have suffered for civil right such as Sarah Collins ”the fifth little girl” and the only little girl who did not lose her life in the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombings by the KKK. Review city and county employment practices, city and county board appointments for diversity. Like a flailing fish out of water, use youth wisely, the vigor is temporary. Do something; move swiftly as an action figure; race nimbly as a progress promoter; perfect as a pathologist of societal justice and in heart of the day, shiver at the outcome when we overcome.

Constance Okwumabua, of Jamestown, was the guest speaker at a Black History Month program held at the Jamestown YWCA on Feb. 25.